All That Remains by Sue Black reviewed

All That Remains Book Cover All That Remains
Sue Black
Non Fiction
Doubleday UK
April 15, 2018

Featured on BBC RADIO 4's Start the Week Sue Black confronts death every day. As Professor of Anatomy and Forensic Anthropology, she focuses on mortal remains in her lab, at burial sites, at scenes of violence, murder and criminal dismemberment, and when investigating mass fatalities due to war, accident or natural disaster. In All that Remains she reveals the many faces of death she has come to know, using key cases to explore how forensic science has developed, and what her work has taught her. Do we expect a book about death to be sad? Macabre? Sue's book is neither. There is tragedy, but there is also humour in stories as gripping as the best crime novel. Our own death will remain a great unknown. But as an expert witness from the final frontier, Sue Black is the wisest, most reassuring, most compelling of guides.

Sue Black (Professor) is probably the country’s leading expert in forensic anthropology. In All That Remains she looks at her life dealing with the aftermath of death. This is in part biography and in part an exploration of cases and events she has dealt with. She deals with “remains” – what is left when one of us die. Her expertise has been used in many a varied situations over the year. Murders and unknown bodies discovered are her bread and butter (did I really just write that!). However she has also dealt with truly horrifying events such as mass graves in Kosovo and the chaos after the Indian Ocean Tsunami.

This starts off with a very good intro introduction to death in general and forensic anthropology in particular. I immediately for the writing easy and so the reading was too. Sue Black comes over as one of those rather rare experts who are good at communicating too. From the start there is humour and humanity amongst visceral scenes. The writing manages to feel objectively scientific and warmly human at the same time.

All That Remains explores aspects of the author’s life with a balance of biography and examination of significant cases she has dealt with. While I loved this book I frequently felt I wanted more, particularly about the cases. You are left with the feeling throughout this book that few people in the world know more about her subject than Sue Black.

There are a wide variety of cases offered to the reader in the course of this book. I’d rather people discovered the stories for themselves. However I would just say that the Kosovo chapter was far the hardest to read and made me shed a tear. It might well have been the one with most humour in too. Certainly the Indian Ocean Tsunami and the Kosovo chapters show just how determinedly outspoken the author can be although she appears to be listened too increasingly as well.

Towards the end of the book there is a chapter that looks at what to most of us would be the horrors of Sue Black’s work. The humanity, delicacy and sheer grit exhibited here and elsewhere in the book would alone have me recommending this book. It ends (other than a comprehensive index) with her thoughts on her own mortality. They came as little surprise to me but were worth the read too.

I simply found All That Remains fascinating in the broadest sense of the word. Sue Black writes with a remarkably light touch, humorously at times however still gentle in the troubled and troubling parts. One of the best non fiction reads to me and it will certainly be a “best book of the year”. If the subject matter interests you do read it – I would be surprised if many did not find it very interesting at the least.

Note – I received a digital copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair review